Composer Nigel Morgan on Composing Parametrically
"As a composer it is increasingly difficult to escape the intervention of technology into one’s working practice"

As a composer it is increasingly difficult to escape the intervention of technology into one’s working practice.This is evident in Robert Raines’ recent book Composition in the Digital World that collects the ‘digital’ experiences of some twenty-eight American composers. The book covers the revolution in music notation, the impact of the digital audio and video recording on the composing ‘situation’, and the use of electronics and digital media on performance. Just as Benjamin Britten drew attention to recording and broadcasting in his Aspen Lecture of 1964 and Alexander Goehr’s prophetic Reith Lectures in 1987 imagined the influence of computer technology, such collected experience of composers is fascinating.

Whilst composers can and do compose music free from technological intervention, it has become a given for emerging composers that their increasingly sonic-led world involves interaction with digital technology. Whilst the traditional aspect of the composer writing notated scores for human performance is being creatively and rightly challenged, there remains a cultural investment in ‘traditional’ musical performance fuelled by a musical establishment of orchestras, chamber music and solo performance alongside an educational structure that underpins it.

In the practice of Architecture there has been a quiet revolution in engagement with technology. Architects are moving from computer-aided design (CAD) toward Parametric Design.  This is wonderfully apparent in recent buildings by Zaha Hadid Architects, the result of a radical rethinking of how computers can contribute to design. Rather than consider the building as a space in which design happens, the space evolves from a client’s constraints through a series of free-flowing interconnected ‘fields’. It’s as though one thinks from the inside and lets the outside shape itself. The multitude of parameters that make up spatial forms are networked together so that change in one ‘field’ can be compensated (or not) by change in every other.  

Parametric thinking in music probably makes its first appearance as musicological discussion in Leigh Landy’s landmark book What’s the Matter with Today’s Experimental Music? Organized Sound Too Rarely Heard (1991). Landy emphasises that Messiaen, Stockhausen, Cage, Babbitt and Xenakis all began to ‘think parametrically’ with their individual takes on extending serialism, attaching significance to how the musical parameters of pitch, rhythm, dynamics and timbre could be inter-related and interact. Before this composers used their ‘brain computers’ for intuition-led invention that involved applying to musical material what we would now call simple algorithms or function machines, all in the cause of ‘good continuation’.

Much of what composers still ‘do’ with musical material lies in applying to musical ideas a known library of algorithms such as repetition, transposition, inversion, imitation, compression and expansion of pitches into chords and arpeggios and so on. But such a list is now being extended with algorithms that come from systems that lie outside the trusty conventions of musical practice. We have been shown the way in the remarkable inventions of Gyorgy Ligeti and Franco Donatoni. Although never using computers they influenced in their ‘parametric’ practice a younger generation that certainly has, and none more so than Donatoni’s pupil Magnus Lindberg.

Lindberg has only rarely discussed his use of script-based software, which for him involves writing programs in Lisp code, but his practice goes back some 25 years and is a hidden presence in much of his ravishing orchestral work. Of course he doesn’t need to discuss it, but a few analysts and musicologists have begun to pick up the scent of his engagement with programming.

IRCAM has for many years sought the grail of the composing continuum –computer-assisted composition (CAC) from first thoughts to final score. It has developed Patchwork then OpenMusic. In the UK a few composers have brought a relationship with these programs into their practice. Notable is Sam Hayden, whose fine article for the SPNM New Notes in 2008 describes his formative experience with such software and points to his first CAC work Scintilla for harpsichord composed for Jane Chapman.

My own relationship with such software began in 1988 with a letter from a composer who was translating a manual for a script-based composing environment from Finland called Symbolic Composer. Would I like to try it out? She knew I had become interested in the idea of creating my own microworld for music composition. I was interested, and I did try it, realising quickly it reflected some of my own evolving design thoughts. I wanted software that I might extend with my own functions and routines: to reflect the way that I composed and not that of some nameless programmer.

As a composer I write mostly to commission for human performance. This brings with it very particular constraints and exigencies. But I have long been intrigued at how my own ‘brain computer’ might be extended by ‘natural’ algorithms, those iterative functions able to generate distinct musical parameters. Remember in the late 1980s fractals and chaos systems were all the rage and seemed to promise something different. Isn’t composing all about exhibiting difference and seeking novel outcomes? To emphasise this, read composer Rolf Wallin’s fascinating essay (of 1989) on the fractal world in music.

And so, over twenty-five years and a significant number of compositions, I have, like Magnus Lindberg and Rolf Wallin (and a list that could include the music of Jonathan Harvey, Enno Poppe, and Kaija Saariaho) kept faith with an approach to composing in a progressively different way. I regard programming as a way to reflect about intention. When we want to be creative there is often an initial stage where we pick the problem we want to solve: this is called problem-seeking. Script-based programming appears to be an ideal medium in which to problem-seek.

In 2014 I was commissioned to write the tutorial and guidance resources for a new Lisp application called Opusmodus. This is a powerful parametric composition system that includes high-quality notation rendering, something that has not been to the fore in previous systems, although Brian Ferneyhough’s longstanding use of OpenMusic with Finale has provided for him a very workable environment.

To coincide with the launch of Opusmodus I authored with Phil Legard an on-line book Composing How and Why. This discussed how programming related to real-world composition for human performance. Parametric Composition takes Composing How and Why forward into an 85,000-word eBook in three formats, including a PDF for institutional license. It is a book rich in links to sound and score examples from YouTube, SoundCloud, other web media and the interpretation of composers worldwide. Published by Tonality Systems Press its introductory chapters can be previewed on-line as an ISSUU presentation.